Let me present a sketch–though only a sketch and a very broad one at that–of how one might think about theology, both about a problem with it and one of the possible responses to that problem. The primary lines of my sketch will be two: (1) some kinds of theology may encourage idolatry; (2) there are theologies that are more likely to avoid idolatry.
1. Some kinds of theology may encourage idolatry.
To understand the Divine in terms of concepts and their relations to each other–in other words, in terms of knowledge in the quasi-mathematical terms in which knowledge has been construed since the Enlightenment–is to understand the Divine through a human construct. If I worship the construct, that which I know and understand, then I worship an idol.
This is a possibility rather than a necessity: rational theology does not necessarily devolve into idolatry, but it can, and it can do so unbeknownst to the particular worshiper. Idolatry is a danger of theology, not an inevitability. However, certain theologies may be more susceptible to that possibility. I think that systematic theology is an example. When rational knowledge becomes the highest intellectual value, it becomes more difficult to distinguish between what I know and the thing itself. The tendency is either to take the thing itself to be completely unknowable and unreachable (as in some cogent readings of Kant), or to assume that what I know and the thing are the same. In the first case, the only thing I can worship is what I know. I cannot know God, so I can worship only the image of him that I have created. In the second case, I cannot distinguish between the idol I have created and God. In either case, I would worship an idol.
2. Some theologies are less susceptible to idolatry.
Systematic theology takes the word “theology” to mean “the science of God” or “the knowledge of God,” but we can instead understand it to mean “the word of God,” “God’s logos.” We can also we understand the word “knowledge” in the biblical sense, as the experience of intimacy. In either case, neither of which excludes the other, theology becomes something different.
How does one go about doing theology that keeps its eye on the word of God as its origin and on intimate relation as its goal? There are probably numerous ways. I don’t discount the possibility that some who do systematic theology are able to do so. But for me the answer has been something I would call “scriptural theology,” reflecting on the scriptures for the insights that they continue to reveal about human being and our relation to God.
I think that some traditional theological problems are unlikely to arise in scriptural theology. For example, I don’t think that the problem of theodicy does. Neither, I suspect, does the problem of the unity of the Godhead. Formulating those problems requires a meta-step beyond scripture and the desire for intimacy with the Divine. Instead, the questions of scriptural theology are those that the scriptures themselves raise, almost always questions of me rather than my questions about God. On this view, when I bring all the resources I can command to the scriptures, read them to hear what they ask of me, and ponder my answers to their questions, I am doing theology.